Given the tensions between Jewish and Arab Israelis, it’s understandable that coexistence is often hard work. Understandable – but not necessarily acceptable, says Igal Ezrati, director of the Jaffa Arab-Hebrew Theater. The two groups can get along if they put their minds to it, he declares. “I’ve been working with groups of Arab and Jewish actors producing plays and events for over a decade, so don’t tell me it can’t be done,” he asserts to ISRAEL21c.
Indeed, the Arab-Hebrew Theater has been around since 1998, surviving the dark days of the second intifada, the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead. The troupe comprises two veteran theater companies that previously worked in the area independently: Ezrati’s ‘Local Theater,’ established in 1990, and the Arabic-language ‘Al-Seraya,’ which first started performing in 1997. Together with his partner Gaby Aldor, Ezrati reached out to Adiv Jahshan, director of Al-Seraya, to establish the Arab-Hebrew Theater.
With its mixed Arab and Jewish population, Jaffa is the perfect place for the troupe to operate. In the spirit of true coexistence, the troupes both work independently, performing plays strictly in Arabic or Hebrew, and hold joint productions in which they mix actors and languages. All the performances are held in the Al-Seraya House. Originally built in the 18th century as a khan (a lodging house or inn), it was later used for purposes as diverse as a governor’s mansion and a soap factory.
Coexistence through manner and means
Today the building is a national landmark, housing both a museum of archaeological finds from ancient Jaffa, and the Arab-Hebrew Theater. The actors with the Local Theater have hailed from all over the country, but are “now mostly Tel Aviv transplants,” Ezrati says, while the members of Al-Seraya come mostly from Jaffa.
The joint efforts are ‘joint’ in every sense of the word, with productions, scripts, and even performance dates decided upon together. The productions chosen generally reflect the troupes’ point of view on coexistence, Ezrati explains. For example, he says, the theater’s production of 1001 Nights last year was chosen not just because it’s a good story, but because it has an important message for Arabs and Jews.
“The story is well-known. A depressed king takes a different wife each night – and kills her in the morning – until he meets Sheherazade, who beguiles him with her stories, until he learns to trust in love again. It actually is symbolic of the power of words and especially art, to overcome violence,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
In addition, Ezrati says, the theater chose the production to bring an important piece of Arabic literature to the attention of the Jewish public. “The story of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves everyone knows, but there are other Sheherazade tales that are far less-known to the Israeli Jews – while they are well known to Israeli Arabs,” he explains.
Pantsuits and hijab
Arab literature and arts tend to be overlooked by the country’s mainstream performing arts institutions, he says, adding that he believes that just presenting Israeli Jews with plays based on traditional Arabic literature is a way to promote coexistence.
The theater also sponsors several special events throughout the year, such as a children’s festival, offering workshops and plays specifically for the younger set. “It’s a great feeling, seeing kids from Jewish and Arab neighborhoods of Jaffa sitting together and watching with a fascinated look on their faces,” Ezrati relates.
This year, the festival garnered international attention, hosting guest troupes from Poland and Germany. Just as impressive, Ezrati says, is the Women’s Festival, during which Arab and Jewish women participate in performance workshops, readings, dance recitals and discussion panels. “It’s rare to find a forum where modern Israeli women, dressed in pantsuits, can sit together with Arab women from villages wearing traditional Arab dress, like hijabs, but that’s what we have created here,” says Ezrati.
While tensions undeniably surface, Ezrati claims that they are generally personal, and very rarely political. “The producers, writers and actors from both troupes are professionals, and they all believe in promoting coexistence – otherwise they wouldn’t be here,” he asserts.
“People see this theater as an island of sanity, in an area that is sometimes lacking sanity. We are here to show that it is possible for people from radically different backgrounds to live in the same society, holding onto their own identities, while working together peacefully to attain a goal,” he adds.
Survival is not guaranteed
But, as so often happens, governments get in the way – in this case, Israel’s Culture and Sport Ministry, which is supposed to help cover the theater’s budget. “The Tel Aviv Municipality gave us the space in Al-Saraya, for which we are very appreciative, but the ‘big money’ we need to cover our budget – ticket sales alone are not enough – is supposed to come from the government,” says Ezrati.
Apparently, the bureaucratic funding nightmare recurs annually. “Every year it’s something different.” Eventually, though, Ezrati expects the government to come through. “We have support from many people around the country, both financial and political. This is too important a project to let die.”